Education Gadfly Weekly
Volume 4, Number 41
November 11, 2004
Opinion + Analysis
The G.O.P. education opportunity
High noon for D.C. charters
Gray skies in San Diego
The old is new in Japanese schools
Fighting for the best
Chester E. Finn, Jr. / November 11, 2004
Will President Bush and his invigorated Republican allies in Congress seize their new opportunity to reshape federal education policy for the 21st century?
One can hope.
Education, as many have noted, loomed small during the campaign, save for the "yes I did, no you didn't" wrangling over the adequacy of NCLB appropriations. The President tendered some nebulous and generally predictable ideas for the second term, notably the suggestion that high schools be brought under the NCLB accountability mandate. Mr. Kerry mostly talked about spending. And sundry voter surveys indicate that, as one might have expected, education was not much on voters' minds. (Most of those who said it was a key consideration favored the Democratic ticket.) Nobody can be sure if that's because the candidates failed to make the topic significant or because people are simply more concerned about other things.
Immediately after his victory, the President enumerated his high-priority agenda items for the second term, and he included education on that list. But how he talked about it is revealing. His other domestic initiatives could be termed part of the "ownership society." They would empower individuals and families to make their own decisions and direct their own resources: shaping their own social security, finding the health care that suits them, keeping more of their after-tax income, setting aside funds for the college of their choice, etc. Only when talking about K-12 education did he speak in terms of institutions, indeed of governmental
November 11, 2004
In October, Congress enacted a D.C. appropriations bill that includes a "right of first offer" to charter-school operators to buy or lease surplus public school facilities at a 25 percent discount. According to the Washington Times, the advocacy group Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS) lobbied for the mandate that became "part of a proviso orchestrated by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA)," a member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, behind the backs of the D.C. City Council and Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. At a City Council meeting earlier this month, members expressed "outrage" that FOCUS did not tell city officials about the proposal. FOCUS policy and program associate Alicia Daugherty defends the non-profit's decision, however, arguing that the group had gone to Congress out of frustration after trying for years to work with city officials, who have been notoriously reluctant to sell or lease vacant school buildings to their competitors, even if it would be good for the District's ill-educated children. While the new law is an important milestone for charter supporters in the District, one cannot be sure it will have the desired effect; Council members are already laying the groundwork for obstruction, arguing, says the Washington Post, that "the law is difficult to implement because its wording is vague."
"Putting children first," Washington Times, November 8, 2004
"Charter School Measure Slips Into District Law," by Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, November 4, 2004
November 11, 2004
Two recent developments in San Diego threaten the viability of reform-minded Superintendent Alan Bersin and his "Blueprint for Change" - a series of worthy district-wide reforms championed by this remarkable public servant and his (until now) 3-2 majority on the school board. (For more, click here.) First, three newly elected board members have voiced dissatisfaction with Bersin's "Blueprint" - a change that the teachers union sees as a golden opportunity to try to run him out of town. (The union is already circulating a petition entitled: "Resolution: San Diego Unified School District Removal of Superintendent Alan Bersin. End Bersin's Monopoly of Failed Educational Initiatives.") Second, last week, a Superior Court ruled that 11 principals and vice principals who were stripped of their management duties by Bersin in 1999 should get their administrative posts back, along with lost pay and benefits. (In 1999, Bersin recommended - and the Board unanimously approved - a decision to reassign to the classroom a clutch of administrators who, according to the district's attorney, "didn't have the skill set to implement [Bersin's] reforms.") While district lawyers want to appeal, their efforts may be in vain; two of the three new board members have already indicated that they want to reinstate the principals and the third says he won't support an appeal.
"Lynching Bersin," San Diego Union-Tribune, November 8, 2004
"Former principals win case against district," by Maureen Magee, San Diego Union-Tribune, November 6, 2004
November 11, 2004
Yesterday, education blogger Joanne Jacobs wrote about a contest, jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and Dickinson College, designed to help teachers address the subject of the September 11 attacks in particular and terrorism in general. The contest called for lesson plans to help students "confront and make sense of the horrific events of that day." However, as Jacob Laksin reports in Front Page Magazine, "if the contest's eventual winners are any indication, there was yet another, unspoken criterion: the lesson plans had to encourage students in the notion that the terrorist attacks, however horrific, were the direct consequence of an abominably misguided U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East." To whit, the winning elementary school lesson urges students to consider the attacks "in the broader context of global injustice" by answering such tough questions as "why do they hate us"; the middle school lesson suggests that teaching students the following vocabulary words will help them understand terrorism: "Al Qaeda," "Saddam Hussein," "stereotype," "Taliban," and "right wing" ("Left wing" was noticeably absent from the lesson.); and the winning high school lesson "exhorts teachers to present the Patriot Act against the backdrop of the Japanese internment during World War II." Though Dickinson College professor David Commins, who helped oversee the contest, admits that in each of the winning lessons, "there is an assumption that U.S. foreign policy is responsible for the attacks of September 11," he insists that that wasn't the
November 11, 2004
A debate over constructivist versus traditional pedagogy seems to be brewing in Japan, of all places. In the 1990s, Japanese officials partially decentralized the nation's education system and began touting a teaching system that moved away from the drill-and-memorization approach that had marked Japanese education for decades. The new American-inspired system, called yutori kyoiku or "loose education," emphasized a reduced workload, fewer lectures, and more out-of-class learning projects. Not surprisingly, just as the new system was put into place, the academic achievement of Japanese schoolchildren began to slip. Now some Japanese educators are returning to the lecture, drill, and memorization methods of the past, with evident success. In the seaport town of Onomichi, elementary school principal Hideo Kageyama has instituted long division drills, poetry memorization, and immersion English programs in the schools he administers. Test scores have risen and half of his students have gone on to Japan's rigorous universities, twice the national acceptance rate. That success, plus declining scores nationwide, has sparked a backlash against "loose" education, with calls for a return to traditional instructional methods that made Japanese children among the highest academic achievers in the world.
"As test scores fall, Japanese schools get harsh lesson," by Martin Fackler, Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2004 (subscription required)
November 11, 2004
The Washington Post Magazine presents a must-read profile of a single mother from D.C. who has made immense sacrifices to get her two children the best education possible. Sheila Hutton is dogged beyond belief in her quest: "Every morning Hutton would call [her daughter's principal] to ensure her daughter was accounted for. She'd call later in the day to make sure Michelle was still there or to confirm assignments. Some days, she'd leave work early to get to the building around dismissal. Michelle, rather than hanging out with friends, had to ride the bus or train home with her." Hutton is a strict disciplinarian, but also struggles to sign her children up for free programs in dance, sports, and educational travel; she hand-delivered her son's application to a D.C. charter school and then fought for him to attend a New England prep school, even though he had to repeat eleventh grade; and though it broke her heart, she sent her daughter to live with her father in New Hampshire to attend a rural high school there. In time, her health was nearly ruined by stress but she succeeded: both children are attending college this fall. Sheila Hutton's story is heartening and a little infuriating. Getting a good education for one's children in the nation's capital shouldn't be this difficult. And hanging over this story like a fog, of course, is the new D.C. voucher program. Would Hutton have taken advantage of
When Schools Stay Open Late: The National Evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, New Findings
Eric Osberg / November 11, 2004
U.S Department of Education / Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Prepared by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. and Institute of Education Services
This is the second of three planned reports examining the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, a big federal program that supports after-school activities in 7,000 elementary and middle schools. (For the first report, click here.) Though the title promises new findings, the major results are largely unchanged: compared with similar youngsters outside the program, participating students showed little or no improvement in test scores or "developmental outcomes" (such as working well with others). There was also evidence of increased "negative behaviors," such as drug use or "breaking things on purpose." On the other hand, students in the program felt safer and more of them expected to go to college, while their parents were more likely to attend school events and (perhaps) to work or seek work. Overall, not a strong endorsement for a program that consumed $1 billion in federal spending in 2002. The first report was based on a single year of data; this one rests on two years. In so detailed a study, one might hope that silver linings could be found for minority or other subgroups, but that's not so. Part of the problem may be that much time is spent on recreational activities, and (it seems) not a tremendous amount on tutoring, though the centers
November 11, 2004
Bryan C. Hassel & Lucy Steiner, Public Impact
In this Public Impact report, Bryan Hassel and Lucy Steiner argue that, in order to dramatically improve student achievement in chronically low-performing schools - i.e., those that continue to languish despite interventions - districts should consider "starting fresh." According to the authors, that means replacing "schools that consistently fail to meet the educational needs of their students...with 'new' schools... [that] operate in the same buildings...[but] are 'new' in every other important sense." While it sounds similar to reconstitution - where leadership and staff are replaced but the school's basic operating structure remains the same - it actually moves a step beyond, offering a more comprehensive school redesign based on the transparent decision making systems like those found in quality charter schools and their authorizers. Ideally, districts would have a "pipeline" of school leadership teams with coherent school plans that could be implemented by the time the "new" school is slated to open. Obviously, "starting fresh" isn't for all schools, but for those plagued by chronic low-performance, it could be the answer. To read more, click here.
Charter Schools and Oversight: Where is the Line Between Effectively Holding Schools Accountable and Overregulation?
November 11, 2004
National Association of Charter School Authorizers
This NACSA publication, consisting of brief statements from four charter school experts on the balance between accountability and overregulation, contains helpful advice for organizations embarking on the stormy seas of charter sponsorship. First, NACSA president Greg Richmond offers four helpful guidelines, which, by his own admission, may sometimes conflict. (E.g., "Monitor only those activities that a charter school is legally required to perform" and "Protect the public's interest.") But that's precisely the point: guidelines are general principles that have to be thought through on a case-by-case basis by each authorizer. Jim Griffin of the Colorado League of Charter Schools explains the importance of commitment: an authorizer must constantly keep its goals in mind, and those goals must be reflected in the very structure of the authorizing organization. Joe Nathan of the Hubert Humphrey Institute emphasizes three aspects of the chartering process: clarity, quality, and flexibility. And Jo Baker of the D.C. Public Charter School Board explores the specific criteria - including a school's adherence to its, fiscal viability, and adequate student progress - by which the DCPCSB oversees its schools. Overall, it's a quick read, and for those interested in charter school authorizing, worthwhile. You can find it here.